Printers Row Publishing Group:



October 1, 2018

For fun facts and interesting stories, just dial 1-800-UNCLE-JOHN. Actually, don’t, because that’s not a functional number, and everybody does everything over the internet these days instead of the phone. For example, here’s a toll-free look at the history of 1-800 numbers.

Automated collect calling

Back in 1967, American telephone companies introduced a new system to alleviate the workload for the nation’s taxed telephone operators. And by “companies” we mean “company”—AT&T, also known as “Ma Bell” or simply “The Phone Company,” because, as the originators of telephony in the United States, they maintained a monopoly on all phone stuff in America. The work-relieving idea: “automated collect calling.”

The history

In the 1960s, and up until the early 2000s when cell phone became relatively inexpensive and widespread, collect calling was far more common. Making a phone call, particularly a long distance phone call, was very expensive back in the day, and calling another party “collect” shifted the payment from you to them. The hitch: The person on the other end had to authorize the call, and the charge on their phone bill in a few weeks. Automated collect calling eliminated the need for an operator—call a specially set-up number with an 800 prefix (instead of an area code) and the person or party on the other automatically got charged and they were okay with it (because they set up the number in the first place).

Great for business

On an individual American level, these “toll-free” weren’t widely adopted — after all, what regular joe would get a new phone number just so they could get charged for every call? Businesses, however, loved it. The first companies to apply for 1-800 numbers (which firms called “toll-free” to be palatable to customers) were hotel and car rental chains. It was a nice courtesy for customers to be able to call a company to complain, say, and not get a bill for it.

800-starting numbers, all used up

Those 1-800-prefixed numbers were very expensive, however, and because AT&T had a monopoly, it could charge whatever it wanted. After the federal government split up the company in 1984, which encouraged the creation of multiple new phone companies and regional carriers, that created competition in the marketplace, which drove down the price of 1-800 numbers nationwide. That led to explosive growth for the prefix, and it became standard for big companies to offer a toll-free number. The idea was so popular that by 1996, all the 800-starting numbers were used up. Phone companies soon set aside 888, and then 877 and 866 by 2000. Since the turn of the new millennia, 855 and 844 became the prefix of choice.

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